Many countries, especially in the democratic West, champion freedom of expression and allow publications that lampoon Islam’s prophet. So why is France singled out for protests and calls for boycotts across the Muslim world, and so often the target of deadly violence from the extremist margins? Its brutal colonial past, staunch secular policies and tough-talking president, who is seen as insensitive toward the Muslim faith, all play a role.
While French officials often say their country is targeted because of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and a rampart of global democracy, what distinguishes France most is its unusual attachment to secularism (or laicite).
The often-misunderstood concept of French secularism is inscribed in the country’s constitution. It was born in a 1905 law after anti-clerical struggles with the Catholic Church. Separating church and state, the law was meant to allow the peaceful coexistence of all religions under a neutral state, instead of a government answering to powerful Roman Catholic clerics. Crucifixes were at one point torn from classroom walls in France amid painful public debate.
Photo: Spiridon Ion Cepleanu/Wikimedia Commons 照片：Spiridon Ion Cepleanu∕維基共享資源
A century later, polls suggest France is among the least religious countries in the world, with a minority attending services regularly. Secularism is broadly supported by those on both left and right.
State secularism is central to France’s national identity and demands the separation of religion and public life.
Schools have historically instilled the Republic’s values in its citizens — a task some teachers say becomes ever harder as a minority of French Muslims and adherents of other faiths seek to express their religious identity.
As the number of Muslims in France grew, the state imposed secular rules on their practices. A 2004 ban on Muslim headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols in schools remains divisive, if not shocking to many outside France. A 2011 law banning face veils made Muslims feel stigmatized anew.
In recent decades, the desire among some French Muslims to express their religious identity has dominated the debate around balancing religious and secular needs.
(AP and Reuters)
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